At the Back Fence Issue #258

March 22, 2007 – Issue #258

(This column will remain “new” until April 2nd)

From the Desk of Robin Uncapher:

Let Me Bring You A Sandwich

A very old friend whom I will call Kathy turned me on to reading romance novels. When we first talked about them, Kathy told me that she felt cynical about the lack of real romance in her life. Romance novels made her feel better. Kathy had been married for over twenty years to a man who had stopped seeing her for who she was and had stopped making her feel even slightly attractive. Though she expected to remain married for the rest of her life, Kathy’s dissatisfaction with her husband had made her skeptical about all men. She did not believe it was possible for a husband to listen to her, anticipate some of her wishes, or make her life fun.

Kathy read only contemporaries. She said, “They are my dream. I know men aren’t really like this, but reading it makes it feel real.”

It was sad, but, knowing Kathy’s relationship, I understood. When she said that the men in romance novels aren’t realistic, Kathy wasn’t talking about someone like the Linda Howard hero in Diamond Bay, a sexy James Bond type without the sense of humor. Nor was she referring to J.D. Robb’s billionaire Roarke, who showers his wife with diamonds, pearls, and expensive clothes – and complains that she won’t wear them. She didn’t mean that heroes like Roarke who take interplanetary trips once or twice a month and urge their wives to come along aren’t realistic. She wasn’t even thinking of the kind of take-charge heroes whom Suzanne Brockmann creates for her SEAL books. Nope. When she said “unrealistic,” Kathy meant a guy who folds the laundry when it comes out of the dryer so that you won’t have to worry about it.

Kathy meant the kind of man who calls you at work, worried, because you were sneezing that morning and he is afraid you are getting sick. She meant the kind of guy who picks up your jacket and puts it where you can find it, makes coffee and brings it up the stairs, or keeps track of when you should get that next mammogram and bugs you about going.

Because I knew the state of Kathy’s marriage, I knew exactly what she meant. It had been a long, long time since anyone had told Kathy that he was worried because she had the sniffles or even made her lunch on a Saturday. It was even a long time since she’d complained about such things. She no longer believed they were possible.

It took an earthquake in her life to do it, but Kathy is no longer cynical. Instead of remaining sterile but stable, Kathy’s relationship with her husband completely fell apart. After a difficult divorce and some time spent making a new start, Kathy astonished herself when she fell in love. Her new man makes her feel beautiful, sexy, and special. And here is the funniest thing: this man is a nice normal guy who laughs at Kathy’s jokes and asks her if she still has that headache she complained about last night. He is exactly the kind of guy whom Kathy believed did not exist.

I thought of Kathy when I pitched the idea for this column to Laurie. There is something about a beta hero that makes a woman feel all warm, fuzzy and safe. Alpha heroes are exciting; Peregrine, of Mary Jo Putney’s Silk and Shadows, made me shiver as much as any other woman who picked up the book. He was total alpha, mysterious, sexy, and oh so sure of himself. He hated the heroine’s fiancé because of a horrible secret (revealed at the end of the book) and pushed his way into her life, manipulating events to that she would be forced to marry him. He was ruthless – cruel, even – but his love for the heroine was just as single-minded as his hatred of the villain. And, that did seem, well, kind of nice.

Naturally, if a reader really thought about it she would realize that Peregrine would be more fun to fall in love with than to live with. He wasn’t going to be the kind of hubby who’s a lot of laughs when kids track mud in the house. I doubt he expected to share the decision making. I can’t even imagine him picking up a book his wife is reading and pouring over it, just because he wants to understand her better.

Peregrine and his like have a strange appeal, even to very independent and liberated women. Most people boil the reason down to sex appeal. Heroes like Peregrines and Sebastian, Marquess of Dain, hero of Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels, exude power. They give their lovers what they “want.” They have some kind of sixth sense that enables them to know when a woman is saying no when she really means yes. Passion, passion, passion…that’s the appeal of an alpha male.

As I planned this column, It occurred to me that, for me, passion has a different meaning. I can suspend disbelief as quickly as any other woman falling madly in love with Dain or Peregrine for the duration of a story. But I can do so because I am able to accept as a given the idea that this is a hero who knows best, who is a “leader”, and who is worthy enough to boss everybody else around.

In real life I’m too cynical to ever go for a Marquess of Dain. I have yet to meet a man who is right all the time and I detest men who think that they are. I don’t accept the idea that every household has to have a leader, and the husband is the natural leader. Every time Dr. Phil asks some moronic husband “Do you want to stand up and be the leader of this family?” I can’t help but wonder why he never asks a wife the same question. I’ve never heard a wife protest though, and my guess is that its because she thinks the fragile ego of said hubby would not be able to stand it.

I don’t know about you, but the last person I want to live with is somebody who feels he’s called upon to be The Leader one hundred percent of the time. The reason, I suspect, is deeper than the justice of compromise or even the justice of equality. Its about living with somebody who “gets” you, who knows you’re just plain better at some things. Its about living with somebody who goes the extra mile to get inside your head.

My favorite beta heroes are the kind of men who aren’t too sure of themselves. The seafaring hero of Carla Kelly’s short story, An Object of Charity, can’t imagine why a woman would find him appealing. But what makes him beta and not alpha is that he’s got the guts to face the idea without dwelling on it. This man’s loneliness and lack of a family make him wish his life was different. This kind of hero tends to assume that women are worth learning about, worth pondering.

It seems to me that not all men really like women and that romance heroes follow that same format. Oh yes, most men like some women – their wives, mothers, daughters and selected friends. But only a small percentage of men have that gift of really talking to women about the things that interest them. Have you ever noticed this? That a small percentage of men seem to like, as opposed to love, women? I’ll bet every woman reading this column right now can close her eyes and think of one man in her current or past life, who likes women. He’s probably not a lothario – just a good guy who listens when you suggest that you might know a teensie bit more about the last election than most men would assume.

What is a beta hero? The answer is not immediately evident, which is why I suspect he’s a tough hero to write. An alpha hero can crush the heroine to his chest. A beta hero has to think of a way to charm his woman without the theatrics. Good beta heroes rely on wit. Robin, the hero of MJP’s Angel Rogue, is small and blonde, an unusual combination for a lead man in a romance. Robin shows compassion for Kat, the heroine, by not pushing her into every decision. To develop Robin, Putney had to write interesting conversations where conflict is based on two people having different ideas – not two people constantly bickering.

Thinking of my friend Kathy’s predicament a few years ago, I wondered if beta heroes are more likely to bring on a fit of loneliness than alpha heroes? Beta heroes are, after all, what most of us hope for in our lives. They are guys who listen, who treat a woman with respect, who do the dishes without being asked…

What do you all think? Romance heroes are pretend, but which are more unrealistic? Are you like Kathy a few years ago, thinking that no guy in the world brings his wife a sandwich on Saturday? Do you resent beta heroes because they make you sad? Or are you like me, just glad they are there to ponder?

Questions To Consider:

Which type of romance hero do you find more unrealistic…the balls-to-the-wall alpha or the guy who notices we are stressed out and offers to rub our back without sex in mind because “your shoulders look tense”?

Who writes beta heroes well? Who doesn’t? And why?

Do you tend to read or avoid beta heroes? If you avoid them, is it because they seem lacklustre next to alpha heroes or for the reason Robin mentioned, or another altogether? Conversely, do you tend to read or avoid alpha heroes? If you avoid them, why do you avoid them?

Do you think different hero types are more fitting in different types of romances? For instance, romantica seems filled with alpha heroes, and do you think Medieval romances are filled to the brim with warriors because a beta just seems wimpy in that period? Are you more likely to see – and to read – beta heroes in contemporaries, or humorous romances?

Are beta heroes less or more sure of themselves than alpha heroes? Is the beta hero more or less likely than the alpha hero to walk away from a fight, and does that show confidence or fear?

Robin Uncapher

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(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)

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